When faced with communicating with the media or even the school community, school leaders should be prepared for the best and worst.

Having worked with a number of schools and education organisations in recent years, it appears that school leaders and teachers are busier and under more pressure than ever before.

Teaching and managing students is just one part of the job. Senior educators are also managing staff, dealing with parents, balancing budgets and fulfilling the requirements of the school’s governing body.

It is easy to forget about the importance of communications and public relations. But here’s three reasons why it should be front of mind:

1. Crisis media management. 

There are countless examples of unprepared schools being thrown into the media spotlight. It might be an issue involving students, staff, parents or even a school policy. It can happen to any school at any time, and dealing with a crisis won’t wait for your next staff meeting! Depending on how the matter is handled, it can be a galvanising or damaging experience for the school community.

2. Communicating with stakeholders. 

Above all else, communicating with your school community should be your first priority. When a major issue arises, it is easy to get distracted by planning for the media response and working through a plan with superiors. But remember that the students, parents and staff are the most important people to talk to. If there’s a significant issue that has generated media attention, a parent shouldn’t hear it first on the evening news – they should’ve received a call, letter or an email from the school first. With a fast moving issue, sometimes a short statement reassuring stakeholders that action is being taken is enough (at least initially).

In many cases, it will be poor communication more than the issue itself that upsets the school community. Ultimately whether it is good news, bad news or a simple update, people just want to be kept in the loop.

3. Promotion.

Every school has a list of fantastic stories waiting to be told. There’s the many student successes, community initiatives and innovative learning programs which make for excellent stories for media, and a great chance to promote and enhance the school brand. Schools are doing amazing but unnoticed work every day because they are not seeing the promotional opportunity.

You now understand that communications and public relations is important. What next?

A simple communications and public relations strategy can save you a lot of time, damage or even provide a well-deserved school brand boost. When writing up your strategy, here’s just a few things to think about:

– What is the process when a media issue arises? Who needs to be notified? Who is responding (eg a dedicated media contact)? Time is crucial, particularly with deadline-orientated media. People involved in this process need to be accessible, with the ability to react quickly.

– Who is your school spokesperson? Generally this should be the same person so there is consistency, and no confusion or mixed messages. In most cases, this would be the school principal or deputy.

– What are your key messages? This will vary depending on the issue, but consider key messages and how you would like the school to be perceived.

– How will you communicate with the school community? Email? Phone call? Do you have time on your side and can prepare a letter?

– Do you have a media calendar? What’s coming up in the year ahead that might make for a good media story? Plan ahead so you can give yourself the best opportunity to maximise exposure.

– Do you have a media group that meets regularly? A group can help implement and review the strategy, and also talk about potential good news stories.

– Do you have access to a PR consultant who can help you? This is highly recommended. An experienced consultant can assist with your strategy, a crisis situation or with the promotion of a good news story. The consultant may also be able to provide training to key staff who would be most likely to deal with media.

This is a simple overview, and I understand that education professionals also have obligations from governing bodies to consider too.

Public relations might seem daunting for some, but it doesn’t need to occupy a huge amount of ongoing time if the strategy is clear and well understood by staff.

Importantly, when you’ve planned for the best and the worst scenarios and communicate well, it gives the school community confidence in its leadership, boosts morale and strengthens the school brand.

Andrew Montesi is Managing Director at Apiro Consulting. Andrew provides public relations advice to organisations in the education industry, including the South Australian State School Leaders Association.

Contact Andrew here.

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